July 5, 2020

Dear Hope Nation,

Part Three of Three

Anyone who’s read Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, now apparently translated as In Search of Lost Time, remembers his madeleine, with memories springing forth from just a crumb of that pastry. There’s a madeleine in today’s letter, but you may be surprised what it is.

I’ve been thinking about and therefore writing about what Freud called the oceanic feeling, the sense of being able to relax into the moment which contains eternity. When we’re swimming in that moment, there is no then or there, just now and here. (For the record, apparently I was wise to place a disclaimer about never having read Freud and that my notions are likely “inaccurate, misleading and just plain wrongheaded.” A kind and gentle reader pointed out that Freud’s take on the oceanic feeling was negative. Freud saw the feeling as equivalent to an infant failing to recognize she is not part of everything around her. My mystical experiences are to Freud a sign of confusion on an essential level.)

The Hopi language has a word, koyaanisqatsi, that means “life out of balance” or a state of life requiring change. If I were more than a linguistic poser and truly knew Hopi, instead a couple words, I’d know if koyaanisqatsi had an antonym. I don’t, but I think the oceanic feeling would do in a pinch. When I experience it, whatever is not right with the world makes no difference because I am right where I should be and all life is balanced.

Two days ago I wrote about meeting a man in Whitley Bay, England, last summer (http://www.hopefornhrecovery.org/at-least-im-not-that-bad/). By helping John and, even more, by seeing myself in John’s eyes and life, he showed me that oceanic feeling. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, usually I bathe like that only in deep nature—far into the desert, climbing a mountain alone or contemplating the ocean. John gave me the chance to observe changes in myself, sort of like looking into the tailor’s mirror to see what my ears really look like.

I left Whitley Bay the day after meeting John, heading out on a seven-day hike following Hadrian’s wall from end to end. The wall, built by the Emperor Hadrian in about 120 AD, still remains intact in many places, and is a delightful hike through beautiful countryside.  The 90 or so miles of hiking began with a walk through the northern industrial city of Newcastle and ended on the west coast at Carlisle. Hadrian, the Roman Emperor from 117 to 138, spent the first few years of his emperorship traveling the outskirts of the empire declaring this spot in Egypt and that spot in North Africa to be the end of the empire. Hadrian’s wall marked the northern boundary of Roman Britain. In short, it said, “Beyond here lies nothing,” which might have come as a surprise to the Picts who lived in Scotland.

Once this long wall was built, of course, it needed to be fortified and manned by soldiers. Since clearly the subject Britons couldn’t be trusted to serve on their home soil, and Roman soldiers were too valuable to hide away in a backwater on the Scottish border, other troops from throughout the empire had to be brought in.  For the next 300 years, Hadrian’s Wall was manned by soldiers from Syria and Poland and Spain and all over the known world. Every mile or so, the wall had sentry posts, and 18 or so forts were dotted along the expanse. Some of these forts, most notably Vindolanda, have been excavated and reconstructed.

Although Vindolanda is a mile away from the wall proper, it is absolutely worth the detour. Substantially reconstructed, the fort gives a real sense of what life must have been like for the soldiers stationed here on the edge of nothing. Although I was only in the Army for four years, that was long enough to have imprinted my emotional DNA with the sense of a soldier. While I was stationed in the small but bustling West German city of Bad Kreuznach, back when there was a West Germany, instead on the northern province back when there was a Roman empire, I still feel some deep connection to the experience.

I promised I’d share with you the oceanic feeling I got many times during that hike, and I will. First, though, the catalyzing event that lead to all that ocean. Vindolanda was that catalyst. More accurately, something I saw at Vindolanda catalyzed things. Most specifically, shoes were that catalysts, hundreds of shoes. For reasons only surmised, the soldiers, workers and families at Vindolanda, apparently threw their shoes into a particular pit. At some point, a building was erected over this cache of discarded boots, shower shoes, sandals and what-all, creating an oxygen-free chamber in which the shoes sat for more than 1700 years until they were unearthed in 2016.

Looking at those boots worn by soldiers posted to the wilderness, all I could do was picture myself, not in my Army-issue combat boots but in these ancient foot coverings. With each field I walked across, each sloping hill, every rock face, I was wearing those ancient boots, and transported back to a time I’d never been.

You matter. I matter. We matter.

Keith